SLEPTSOVSK, Russia, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Russian forces, caught off guard by rebel strikes in Chechnya, are restricting the movements of all Chechen men -- a step which a regional governor said on Thursday would only worsen the situation.
Russia has sealed off Chechnya's border to boys and men between 10 and 60 years of age to prevent guerrillas from getting behind Russian lines and striking at its troops.
"I don't know what to do, my wife is dead and my kids have been left by themselves for two days," said Kairish, a hairdresser from Chechen capital Grozny, after trying to return to the region for two days from neighbouring Ingushetia.
"I am 55, and the guards told me I'm not allowed to cross because I am not 60," Kairish said, adding he went to Nazran, Ingushetia's capital, on Tuesday to buy food and shoes for his children who are living in a railway carriage over the border.
The moves came days after Russia's commander in the region, Viktor Kazantsev, said the "soft-heartedness" of Russian forces was to blame for recent military setbacks, and vowed thorough door-to-door checks of Chechen towns under Russian control.
Ingushetia's leader Ruslan Aushev said in a television interview that the crackdown was a mistake.
"I believe this was not the most correct decision. I think one must strictly observe human rights," he said. "In fighting terrorism, you cannot battle with the peaceful population."
He also said the latest fighting was provoking a new wave of refugees seeking to flee Chechnya.
Vladimir Kalamanov, head of Russia's migration service, was quoted as saying rebel raids on towns in Chechnya's mountainous south had ruled out any chance of returning refugees home.
"Every day about 2,000 Chechen refugees go through the Kavkaz checkpoint and take up places on Ingush territory," Interfax news agency quoted Kalamanov as saying.
CHECHENS SAY PEACE TALKS IN JEOPARDY
On Wednesday, a spokesman for Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov said brutality toward civilians was eroding the chances that any peace talks could stop the fighting. Selim Abdumuslimov warned that the "the situation (could) spin out of control. Then no talks will be able to bring about an end to partisan war".
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has accused Russia of war crimes against civilians and told U.S. President Bill Clinton in a letter that Russia was striking refugee convoys.
"Cities, villages, hospitals, marketplaces, and refugee convoys and corridors have now become targets. These acts against civilians constitute war crimes," MSF wrote.
The Chechen campaign, which former President Boris Yeltsin described as "flawless" before resigning last month, has recently run aground. Troops have taken the lowlands but failed to dislodge rebels from Grozny or mountain bases in the south.
Over the weekend rebels launched raids on Russian-held lowland towns, reviving the tactic of lightning strikes that won them victory in the 1994-96 war in the province. The raids have begun setting off alarm bells in Russia's media.
"It is increasingly obvious that the Kremlin and the Defence Ministry have grossly miscalculated the campaign," analyst Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the English-language Moscow Times paper.But Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, on a visit to the region, said reports had exaggerated the extent of the setbacks.
"Reports in the media of a significant worsening in the situation are a grotesque exaggeration," he said in televised comments at a Russian air base. "The situation is stable."
RUSSIAN TROOPS, REBELS FIGHT IN SOUTH
The rebels' Internet web site, kavkaz.org, said Russia had made up ground in Argun and rebels had withdrawn from the key town, east of Grozny. It said Russian troops and rebels were still fighting in Shali, Gudermes and Achkhoi Martan.
A spokesman for the former of Grozny, Bislan Gantamirov, who heads a group of pro-Moscow Chechen forces, told Itar-Tass news agency that Russian troops had nearly taken control of Grozny.
"We could in two days take the town under full control," Tass quoted the spokesman as saying in Moscow. The rebels denied the claim, saying fighting was continuing in the capital.
Any reversal in the war could hit Acting President Vladimir Putin's presidential hopes. He owes his enormous popularity mainly to previous successes in Chechnya.
"Putin's Chechen adventure seems to be in serious trouble. But this does not mean the attitude of the Russian people will change," Felgenhauer wrote.
"While the Russian media continue to portray the campaign as victorious, public support for the war will also continue."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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